Iran and Egypt: The Story of Two Uprisings

Disjunctions between public statements and actions of government officials are the stuff that provides material for commentators and comedians.  Rarely, however, has there been such a gap as we have witnessed coming out of Tehran in recent days.
First came Ayatollah Khamenei’s declaration hailing the triumph of the protesters in Egypt as a forerunner of the triumph of Islam in the region.  Then, when the demonstrations spread to Iran, the regime reacted with its usual intimidation and brutality, rejecting the very people power they had just applauded.
If ever there was a moment that exposed the bankruptcy of the Islamic regime, this was it.
The question remains: How can we in the West be helpful in bringing about change in Iran?
Going back two years to the protest movement that emerged in Iran following the fraudulent presidential election, two elements stood out.  First, the regime had no compunction about using brutality to put down the protests.  The contrast to the recent behavior of the Egyptian government is stark and critical.
Second, the United States administration expressed only the most minimal support for the demonstrators, again in stark contrast to the recent situation in Egypt where the White House enunciated unequivocal support for the demonstrators and put pressure on President Hosni Mubarak to step down.  This led some to comment that it is far more dangerous in the Middle East to be a friend than an enemy of the U.S.
It was pointed out during the 2009 Iranian protests that the Obama Administration was reluctant to be seen as strong supporters of the demonstrators because the regime would use that to delegitimize the protests -- tools of the Americans and the Zionists they would be called.
I didn’t believe the argument was valid then, and think it’s even less relevant today. The Iranian regime has delegitimized itself, first by conducting a patently dishonest election, then by using brutal methods to stop the protests, and now again in their most recent hypocrisy.  Yes, they always will try to label opponents of the regime as Western spies, but that tactic has worn thin as the credibility of the regime has disappeared.
The statement by President Obama on February 15 condemning Iran’s harsh treatment of anti-government protesters reflected this understanding: “It’s ironic that the Iranian regime is pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt.  They acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by using force against the demonstrators.”
If there was any justification for the administration’s caution in 2009, it lies in not exposing the demonstrators to a regime that, unlike the one in Egypt, would not hesitate to engage in massacres to put down an uprising, no matter how peaceful.  Let’s remember that President George H.W. Bush in 1991 gave encouragement to Kurdish protesters at the close of the first Persian Gulf War, then they were left exposed to the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, resulting in deaths of thousands.
There is every indication that if not for the brutality of the Iranian regime, Tehran would be experiencing mass demonstrations against their regime similar to the ones in Egypt.
We are faced with two significant challenges at this historic moment in modern Middle East history: how to avoid new democracies being hijacked by Islamic extremist groups; and, how not to end up with a situation where the only regimes to change are those who were pro-American, because they were reluctant to use excessive brutality and because they were most subject to American pressure and influence.  In that scenario, Iran, Syria and Libya would remain as they are and would be continual sources of subversion for the newly democratic societies.
At a time when change is in the air throughout the region, the opportunity is before us to isolate Iran in the international community because of its starkly different behavior than that of the Egyptian government.
Just as the Helsinki process played a role in the eventual dismantling of the Soviet regime by exposing to international scrutiny and condemnation its fundamental violation of basic rights, now is the time to focus on the tyrannical nature of the Islamic regime in Iran.  The moment is right for such a sustained international effort, one that in the long run offers the possibility of real change in Tehran.  Such a development would be the single most important one in creating a new and more peaceful Middle East and world.  
Abraham H. Foxman is the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. His books include "Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype” (Palgrave Macmillan, November 2010) and "The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.”